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Hermann Bacher, Jesuit who founded people-led watershed development, dies

For a country that had just gained independence, asset creation was on top of the government’s agenda, which meant wells being dug to access groundwater. In the 1960s, Hermann Bacher formed an organisation called Social Center, which helped farmers access technology and better seeds.

By: Express News Service | Pune |
September 16, 2021 12:48:26 am
Born and educated in Switzerland, father Hermann Bacher was for a rural and agrarian community in the Alps. (Source: Watershed Organisation Trust)

Hermann Bacher, a Jesuit from Switzerland who founded a people-led movement for watershed development in Ahmednagar, died on September 14.
Born and educated in Switzerland, father Bacher was for a rural and agrarian community in the Alps. Early in his life, he had understood the importance of water for an agrarian community and this understanding came to his aid when, at the age of 24 in 1948, he came to Ahmednagar to work in the drought-stricken area.

For a country that had just gained independence, asset creation was on top of the government’s agenda, which meant wells being dug to access groundwater. In the 1960s, he formed an organisation called Social Center, which helped farmers access technology and better seeds.

Bacher or Baba Bacher, as he was popularly known among the people, pioneered a social revolution in community managed watershed development.

The drought of 1972 changed his outlook towards water management. His long-time associate, Crispino Lobo, with whom he later co-founded WOTR, said instead of resource exploitation, he turned to resource mobilisation.

“Groundwater is a precious resource, once you extract it, it can only be replenished by rainwater and in case rains fail, the groundwater table will not be replenished. Instead of groundwater, father Bacher turned to conservation of rainwater — his philosophy was simple: make the running water walk and stop the walking water, which ultimately would lead to recharge of underground aquifers,” he said.

This understanding led Bacher to mobilise communities to take up the work of soil and water conservation. His approach was to stop the flow of water and work on entire watershed areas. “Back in those days, a white man asking people to join forces to undertake watershed development was difficult.

But thanks to his perseverance and connect with the land and its people, he succeeded,” he said.
This work was the foundation of what is called Indo-German Watershed Development model, which has now has become a national programme being implemented across the country.

Fluent in nine languages, Bacher’s work attracted the attention of the German government, which funded this work as part of its mission to eradicate poverty.

Although Bacher left India in 2008, his love for the country remained strong. “I spoke to him a few months ago when he was at a care facility near Zurich. Even at that time, he did respond in Marathi, although by then his faculties had started failing,” he said.

A simple man till the end of his stay in India, Bacher used to drive his own jeep with a trowel and tub in the back seat. If he came across any earthen structure that needed repairs, he would stop to do it and enlist any passersby in the effort also. “He worked at a time when community participation was new. Instead of allowing funds to be spent by the government, he was a strong votary of allowing villages to spend the money — he believed in honesty of the people,” he said.

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